The Guarfian’s style guide editor on..putting fears around texting into historical context

The Guardian’s style guide editor on … putting the fears around texting into historical context
Every minute, the world’s mobile phone users send more than 15 million text messages. There is no evidence that any of them have forgotten how to write
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David Marsh
The Guardian, Monday 15 September 2014 04.00 AEST
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Young person texting on mobile phone
A young person texting. ‘Just a handful of initialisms – such as IMHO, ‘in my humble opinion’, and LOL, ‘laughing out loud’ – have caught on.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson
There’s a song called My KZ, Ur BF by the band Everything Everything, and I love everything about it, not least because it illustrates how text messaging – once dismissed as “penmanship for illiterates” in, sad to say, the Guardian – can be elevated to an art form. If you have ever been to a party, and if you know that “KZ” and “BF” are abbreviations of keys and boyfriend, then you already have a story from the song title – in just a few characters and spaces – that you can take wherever your imagination chooses to go. But “KZ” is also short for “kill zone”, and Everything Everything embark on a tour of destruction and chaos, perhaps caused by a terrorist attack, a complex, disturbing tour de force that ends with the compelling line: “It’s like we’re sitting with our parachutes on, but the airport’s gone.”

A few years ago John Humphrys was warning in the Daily Mail, rather less eloquently:

Mary had a mobile, she texted day and night.

But when it came to her exams she’d forgotten how to write.

From this widely held point of view, texters were “vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago: they are destroying it”. The arrival of SMS (short message service) provoked an at times extreme reaction and dire warnings that young people would no longer be able to communicate normally but only in textspeak. And then only if they managed to avoid serious thumb injury.

Older people often go on like this, perhaps through jealousy. Ogden Nash wrote 60 years ago:

The pidgin talk the youthful use

Bypasses conversation.

I can’t believe the code they use

Is a means of communication.

If they are bothered about any of this, which I doubt, young people can take comfort from the fact that similar fears have been expressed throughout history. Like other children of the 1950s and 60s, I lived with the constant concerns of grownups that my favourite TV programmes and pop songs would corrupt my morals, rot my brain and leave me speaking in American slang. Doubtless 40,000 years ago the Palaeolithic edition of the Mail would have warned how cave paintings were corrupting the young and saying “call that art?”. And doubtless one day today’s young people will be moaning about how standards have fallen since the golden age of the early 21st century when they texted each other in perfect English all the time.

In his book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, David Crystal demonstrates that all the offences against English of which texters are routinely accused have been commonplace and acceptable in the language for centuries.

English is rich in useful initialisms: AKA, DVD, NB, RIP and many more. Most people are familiar with the tantalising valentine card message SWALK (“sealed with a loving kiss”) – or, in the case of Alan Bennett in the 1960s comedy Beyond the Fringe, BURMA (“be upstairs ready my angel”), which turned out to be inappropriate because the object of his affections, a Miss Prosser, lived in a flat.

Omission of letters is common, too: in texting, “2nite”, perhaps; in more formal use, Mr and Mrs.

Rebuses (Latin for “by things”) like B4 and CUL8R have also been around for hundreds of years, and nonstandard spellings such as “wot” (1829) and “luv” (1898) date from the 19th century.

Finally, shortened words commonly found in text messages – uni, for instance – are no different from bus, exam, vet and numerous similar examples.

In fact only a small proportion of text language conforms to the stereotype. For example, just a handful of initialisms – such as IMHO, “in my humble opinion”, and LOL, “laughing out loud” (or, if you are David Cameron texting the editor of the Sun during a general election campaign, “lots of love”) – have caught on. One survey showed that as little as 6% of text messages comprised abbreviations. As with email, older users have adopted texting and traditional orthography, with a few shortcuts, is widespread.

Every minute, the world’s mobile phone users send more than 15 million text messages. There is no evidence that any of them have forgotten how to write.

• This is an edited extract from For Who the Bell Tolls: the essential and entertaining guide to grammar, by David Marsh, published in paperback this month by Guardian Faber. To order a copy for £5.99 (RRP £7.99) visit or call 0330 333 684

This is What ‘Bae’ Means

This is What ‘Bae’ Means
Katy Steinmetz @katysteinmetz July 23, 2014

On Wednesday, Pharrell dropped a video for his new single, “Come Get It Bae,” which may immediately raise some questions, such as “Come get what?” and “What in the world does bae mean, anyway?”

The short answer: Though this word was used in the 1500s to refer to sheep sounds, today bae is used as a term of endearment, often referring to your boyfriend or girlfriend. Or perhaps a prospect who might one day hold such a lofty position. Continue reading

Do you talk like a girl?

Do you talk like a girl?

August 25, 2014 – 7:22AM
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Natalie Reilly

Have you ever wondered why some people say ‘like’ so often? Like, even when they didn’t need to? Well, earlier this year researchers from the University of Texas took a look at conversations. Filler words, for example, are exactly what they sound like; words such as ‘uh’ and ‘um’ we use to fill out sentences and are used by everyone. ‘Discourse markers’ on the other hand, are words that appear to litter our sentences, for like, literally no reason, such as ‘like’, ‘you know’ and ‘I mean.’

The group concluded that those particular discourse markers (the ‘likes’) were used more often by young people and women. Continue reading

Is Aussie slang dying out?

Is Aussie slang dying out?
After flourishing in the 20th century, slang is going through a quiet phase. Is it merely dormant – or are Australians taking themselves more seriously?

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Gary Nunn, Monday 26 May 2014 14.02 AEST
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Thongs with Australian flags sit on the field
Australia is progressing from a colloquial lexicon to one reflecting the gravitas of a country viewed with greater global credibility. Photograph: Tim Wimborne/Reuters
From “fair dinkum” to advancing fair, Australia is on an interesting linguistic journey. Once known on a global scale for skulling a tinny in the arvo and having no dramas because she’ll be right, Australia’s lexicon, it appears, is changing. Continue reading

Slang shows us how language is always changing

Slang shows us how language is always changing
Michael SkapinkerBy Michael Skapinker
Pop stars regularly mix up their ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ – and earn far more than those who know where the apostrophe goes

Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue, by Jonathon Green, Atlantic, RRP£25, 432 pages
Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, by Jonathon Green, Jonathan Cape, RRP£17.99, 336 pages
Simply English: An A to Z of Avoidable Errors, by Simon Heffer, Random House, RRP£14.99 pages
Plain Words, by Rebecca Gowers and Ernest Gowers, Particular, RRP£14.99, 320 pages
Jonathan Swift believed English needed an academy to stem the use of words such as “sham”, “banter”, “mob”, “bully” and “bamboozle”. Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, disliked “clever”, “fun” and “stingy”.

For centuries, English’s defenders have decried the language’s decline. Looking back, it is hard to understand why they created a fuss about words that are now part of polite speech. Sometimes the words that caused uproar, rather than being in general use, seem quaint and dated. Continue reading

Words are stupid, words are fun

Previous Blog home
Words are stupid, words are fun
As words fall in and out of fashion, new ones enter the language. But some, such as autonaut, chassimover and pupamotor, failed to reach the assembly line.

Spam, the meat, gave its name to computer spam, via Monty Python. Photograph: Alamy
English is a marvellous mashup of words. A few Celtic placenames. A stock of Old English words (day and night, black and white, food and drink, life and death, beer). Continue reading